For nearly every situation in these modern times, Johnathan Rice has a poem. Found your perfect match but their aesthetic doesn’t line up with yours? Check “We Are Curated.” Need to cancel on your friend you asked to visit you ages ago? Send them “U Flaky.” Lost a bunch of Instagram followers? Take solace in “Final Bridge of Insecurity,” which comprises one sad face emoji beneath the words “Losing followers / Never bothered the Jesus / But it bothers me.” The only thing is, you’ll have to log onto Instagram to read it. Somewhat ironically, that’s where the musician-turned-poet has been sharing his meditations on our crumbling society in the wake of social media for the past year. In the process, his sharp-witted haikus—which he describes as “a little stop along the way as you scroll through your feed”—have amassed a following that includes Anne Hathaway, January Jones, Mandy Moore, and Busy Philipps.
These celebrities have even delivered some of Rice’s poems. After Rice uploads a poem to Instagram, his followers take it upon themselves to submit readings, which Rice later reposts to his account. The community he’s formed around these readings led to Rice eventually inking a deal with Hat & Beard Press to recently release his first book, Farewell My Dudes: 69 Dystopian Haikus. “It’s pretty backwards,” Rice admits to me over the phone, referencing how he got a book deal from Instagram. “I’ve been a working artist since I was a teenager but it’s always good to have a book so you have something to tell your family about on the holidays.” We caught up to talk about why the haiku is the perfect vessel for reflection in our peak vapid times, whether or not it’s okay to laugh at his own, and the “Joan-Dids and Joan-Don’ts” of social media. As Rice says, “Enjoy these 17 syllables and then you can go back to looking at whatever your ex had for breakfast.”
How did you start sharing haikus on Instagram? It began on Instagram [almost] a year ago. I was writing these little haikus on my iPhone notepad. Whenever I felt one was funny or relevant I’d post it. I started watching my Instagram page filling up with these notes instead of images and no judgment to people who take selfies—because writing haikus about them is my bread and butter—but I would rather do this than take a selfie.
How much of the haikus are meant to be laughed at and how much is in earnest? I don’t know if I even know that. Someone once said to me in every joke there’s a kernel of truth so I think that definitely applies here. One of the things about the internet and social media is that we are all complicit in it. Unless you’re churning butter on a commune offline, you’re part of it.
Part of the problem? I don’t even know if it’s a problem. It is what it is. There’s that line in Romeo & Juliet, “All are punished.” That’s how I feel about social media. It’s an alternate universe of personal avatars and projections of what we wished our lives and bodies actually looked like. It’s not a real world, but we are transferring more and more of our real lives into this fake world. As a self-admitted internet addict, it’s interesting to see what apps like Instagram form a culture onto themselves.
Selfie culture in my opinion is fused with our desire to be accepted by our peers and the world. We just want to be loved and adored. If people see a haiku that they think is funny or relevant to their life, they can share it with their friend, who can click it instantly. That’s very exciting because as a writer that’s instant validation quicker than any song I’ve recorded. There’s a gratification… The goal posts for what is narcissistic are being moved everyday.
What about the people reading these: is it coming from a place of humor or earnestness? I think the people who do the readings are very aware of the humor in it. We’re all in on the joke—I hope so, anyway.
How did you decide to present them as video readings? It’s hard to get people to read these days, period. So it’s almost like the readings are talking selfies. It’s like when I was sick when I was younger, my mother put an antibiotic in a scoop of ice cream so I would eat it. That’s how I see writing poetry on Instagram. You have to sweeten the deal to get people to read something.
So, like, subliminal education? Yeah, except there’s nothing really educational about my haikus. They’re vapid observations.
So, subliminal existentialism? Wow, well, you coined that. But I like it a lot. We all kind of sell the clothes that we’re wearing via Instagram. We do the stuff that record labels and publishing houses used to do. Haiku poetry is perfect for Instagram because of its brevity. There’s so much brevity in our culture. In Instagram and the way that we text, we shorten our words but we all know what we’re saying to each other. What I really love about social media is that new words are born on it all the time and they’re in vogue and then they fade out of culture the same way they fade in.
You also seem to love geotags. I’m obsessed with geotags. All of the titles of the haikus are geotags that actually exist. I just type words that I like into a geotag and whatever I like I search around. You can see by the titles some of them are totally bizarre. That’s not me being esoteric. That’s a geotag. Often times it will be a karaoke bar in Vietnam. “Fleetwood Macchiato” is a place that actually exists. “Guacamole Inn” is a hotel somewhere. “Human Extinction Now” is somewhere in Britain. “Desperation Lake”—these are all places.
Do you build haikus around a title? I look for the titles at the end. When I’m about to post it, I look for the geotag and that’s almost as fun as writing the haiku itself. That is what the internet is all about: there is a place that exists on a map that matches what’s inside your head. It’s pretty psychedelic.
In your mind, what makes a good reading of one of these? A lot of people who are submitting readings are reading in character, not as themselves. Anne Hathaway’s reading was pretty great. She just kind of exudes a certain fabulousness.
You and Hathaway have worked together. How did she end up reading the poem about basics? We’ve worked together and we’ll likely work together again. I’ve known Anne for years. I wrote a bunch of music for an independent film she was in called Song One. She very kindly did a reading. She’s uproariously funny.
Did she choose which poem she read? Oh yes. I would never dream of telling Anne Hathaway which haiku to read. That’s kind of been a thing: some people choose the same one. [Actress Rachel Matthews read the same one.] [Matthews] came to the book launch the other night and I was like, “Anne Hathaway did a reading and it’s the same as you but that just means the future looks really bright for you.”
How did Mandy Moore end up reading one? I would always notice Mandy commenting on the haikus and liking them. I think a lot of people just take it upon themselves to do it. I was so stoked Lola Kirke, who I think is one of the coolest chicks I know, was in Japan—the land of haiku—and voluntarily sent one in. It’s still my favorite. The one she did is not in the book but it’s about wondering whether or not you’re an empath, a being that’s attuned to other people’s feelings like an emotional psychic. In my mind, I was imagining a future where people hire empaths for money to understand their feelings, which I don’t think is too far off. I’m sure it’s already happening.
Sometimes people will send me a poem and they get the syllables wrong. If you don’t read the poem correctly I can’t post it.
Who are some of your dream gets for future readings? Penelope Cruz. I would love for Patti Smith to read the one about people who adopt a Patti Smith-like aesthetic in their Instagram. The haiku is “Patti Smith just called, your floppy hat lifestyle mars my legacy.” Like, posing next to a Corvette with a cigarette doesn’t make you Joan Didion. You have to write a book. The picture of Joan Didion on the back of a book is different from the content inside.
Have you seen Ingrid Goes West? No, I haven’t.
There’s a great moment in there about Joan Didion and how she’s so frequently name-dropped but less frequently read. Exactly. She’s one of my favorite writers of all time but I do feel the moment is a zeitgeist of enjoying her aesthetically and not in the literary sense. There’s some Joan Dids and then some Joan-don’ts.
Do you read comments? I do. A real poet would be putting another log on the fire in his cabin and writing a poem to himself and maybe sending it in to a publisher after many years of hardship. I want immediate gratification, approval. I’m just like everyone else.